Local Color vs Perceived Color in Art

local vs perceived color

Ever feel like your painting is just not coming together, no matter how hard you try? You spend hours painting and mixing colors, but something still feels off and the results never match your expectations… 

It can be pretty frustrating!

But guess what? It’s not about the amount of effort you put in … it’s because you’re probably relying on something called “local color.” 

This means you’re painting objects based on what you “think” the color is instead of “the colors you really see”. 

In a case like this… the key to improving your art is to capture the colors as they really appear with all the light, shadows, and reflections. 

What is Local Color in Art?

Local color in art refers to the true color of an object as it appears in neutral lighting, without any shadows or reflections affecting its appearance.

It’s the “true” color you would see if you looked at an object and stripped away all shading, shadows, and reflected highlights.

Local color is often referred to using a generic name that labels the color. 

For example:

  • bananas are “yellow” 
  • a leaf is “green”
  • apples are “red”, etc…

These basic colors are what artists would call “hues”.

local color in art

And of course you would be right! That apple IS red all over…

But …This is different from how these colors might appear in various lighting situations, where light and shade can significantly alter their “perceived” color. 

perceived color in art

Lighting in the environment influences the way we see colors, creating different values, color intensities, and hues based on the strength and direction of light. Even other colored objects in the surroundings can influence the object’s color appearance!

It’s true… when you look at an apple it registers as “red”.

But as artists we have to interpret what we see into different colors so that we can capture not just the local color, but also the full spectrum of how light and shadow play on the object. 

This is how we bring our artwork to life with depth and realism.

Local Color vs Perceived Color

The local color is the inherent color of an object under neutral light, whereas the perceived colors are how objects truly appear under different lighting situations. The change in perceived colors across the surface of the object are what we need to use in a painting to suggest depth and three dimensional shape.

And this varies depending on your painting subject. Maybe it’s a reference photo. Or perhaps your painting from real life? (brave you!)

For example, imagine looking at an apple under warm sunlight vs. artificial indoor lighting. 

The colors would be completely different!

lighting environment and perceived color

Using too much local color!

It’s very helpful to know the local color of an object you are painting (for example as the starting point for mixing colors). However you shouldn’t mix only the local color and use it to paint that object.

And this is where artists sometimes struggle… Because they are relying too much on local color

You might be using local color (the color you know or imagine) rather than the actual colors of the object (the real colors perceived by your eyes).

It can be confusing when you’re trying to match up what you think the local color should be with the colors you need to use to realistically interpret a subject.

If you see what I mean 😕

So what should you do to interpret that apple to make it look like a three-dimensional object?

How do you determine true colors?

Here are some artist tricks to help you understand how lighting changes an object’s “local color” and find the perceived true colors you need to paint…

1. Color Isolation Tool

This is one of the most useful little tools you can have for judging the color intensity, and values of a subject. I often use this on my reference photos.

color isolation tool

Yes… I know 😕

It’s just a piece of card with a hole in the middle!

But it’s extremely handy! 

You can create a small viewing window in a piece of white paper or cardboard and look at the subject through this window. This reduces the influence of surrounding colors and helps you focus on the actual color.

2. Color isolation app

There are plenty of artist phone apps available these days that let you manipulate reference images. 

The one that I use at the moment is called “Coolors”. 

color isolation phone app

With it, you can take a photo of your subject, or browse images on your phone and then pinpoint an area to extract colors from your photos:

extracting perceived colors from photos

3. Squint Your Eyes

This is an age-old artist trick 🙂

Squinting helps reduce the impact of shadows and highlights, making it easier to see the object’s underlying colors and values.

(Or you can just take your glasses off to get that lovely fuzzy look !)

4. Color Charts

If you’re a fan of color charts and swatching colors (and you should be…) you can use them to help identify colors in your paint mixing range, to find mixes that approach your target color.

Compare the object’s color to a color chart or swatch under the same lighting conditions. This can help in matching and identifying the color accurately.

matching colors using color charts

Creating and using color charts in the color mixing process is just a small part of what I teach in my new “Successful Color Mixing” course…

“Successful Color Mixing in Seconds Using Color Maps!”

So next time you paint, try focusing on those real perceived colors.

Your paintings will come to life in ways you never imagined!

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  1. I have taken your beginning course and it really helped me get started on my watercolor painting fun. I love to watch you paint on uTube. Any chance a second course is in the works? Thank you for continuing to send emails about techniques like this one. I find them really helpful. Your desire to teach is well received and appreciated. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Linda
      I have lots of ideas for new courses.
      You’ll find some new mini courses on my homepage.
      You’ll also see a survey that I’m running to find out how I can help people best 🙂

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